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Magazines > Information Today > October 2020

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Information Today
Vol. 37 No. 7 — October 2020
DATABASE REVIEW
Blinkist Solves Book Dilemma
by Mick O'Leary

Blinklist

SYNOPSIS

Blinkist provides short summaries of important classic and recent nonfiction books, with an emphasis on titles in business, career development, and self-help. For each book, there are individual 350-word summaries, called Blinks, of the book’s main ideas. The collection is good, and the Blinks are, generally, accurate, which make Blinkist a reasonable way to gain value from books that would not be read in full.

The old booklover’s aphorism, “too many books, too little time,” is all too true and all too sad. Even if you narrow your wish list to the absolute must-reads, there are still too many. There is an imperfect but practical solution to this dilemma: a book summary service. Yes, it sounds like a cop-out, but you’re already quite comfortable using book summaries in the form of book reviews. Thus, if you find a compatible book summary service, there are three good outcomes: You can shorten your must-read list, you’ll get exposure to many books that you would otherwise never read, and maybe you’ll even have more time for less important things such as sleeping, eating, and working.

THE ‘BEST’ BOOK SUMMARY SITE?

There are dozens of, if not many more, book summary websites, and there’s an enormous variety of types. Many are small, one-person boutiques, and others are larger services. Some cover many subjects, while others are subject-specific. There are free and fee-based ones.

With all of this variety, it’s impossible to easily proclaim the “best” book summary site. But if you weigh selection, quality, and popularity, you’re likely to come up with Blinkist (blinkist.com). It has a very large collection of noteworthy nonfiction books, a good summarizing system, and a simple and efficient interface. Blinkist was founded in 2012 by four German booklovers and its headquarters is located in Berlin. It claims 6 million subscribers.

WHAT’S IN BLINKIST?

The Blinkist collection contains more than 3,500 nonfiction works, with 30 new titles added monthly. Most were originally published in English or are English translations. A small portion are German-language. Blinkist basically has two readerships (although many customers will occupy both groups). The first comprises readers of serious nonfiction, both classics and recent releases, across many subjects. The second comprises those who have business and professional reading needs and interests.

For the first group, the Blinkist collection has noteworthy books in science, social science, history, biography, politics, current events, philosophy, and religion. It has books of major significance in Western culture from the classical age onward: Plato’s Republic, The Wealth of Nations, Common Sense, On the Origin of Species, Walden, The Souls of Black Folk, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and many others that resonate in serious discussions today. Blinkist also has a keen eye for recent books of widespread importance and interest, such as The New Jim Crow, Quiet, and Sapiens.

For the second group, there are important and popular books in management, motivation, leadership, career advancement, and personal development. As in the collection for the first group, this collection includes both classics and new favorites. Blinkist has How to Win Friends & Influence People, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, In Search of Excellence, and several works by Peter Drucker. Recent popular titles include Lean In, Drive, Grit, and Smarter Faster Better. This grouping has popular trade books, but no textbooks or purely academic studies.

Overall, Blinkist has a very good collection. You can argue that it lacks key works in the Western canon, but this debate has no end; Blinkist at least has many of the high points. As for recent titles, let’s compare Blinkist against three major metrics of a book’s importance and popularity: Pulitzer Prizes in History, Biography, and General Nonfiction; the National Book Award for Nonfiction; and Amazon nonfiction bestsellers. Over the last 5 full years (2015–2019), Blinkist has five of the 15 Pulitzer winners in the aforementioned categories and three out of the five National Book Award for Nonfiction winners, but 17 out of 18 of Amazon’s top nonfiction sellers. The books in the first two categories are excellent, but many are of narrow interest. In the Amazon lists, where lots of people vote with their dollars, Blinkist is batting .950.

WHAT IS A BLINK?

A Blink is a short summary, average length about 350 words, of a main idea or theme in a book. Blinks follow a book’s sequence of topics, often by chapter. The number of Blinks per book varies, from a low of six to seven to a high of 12–13, with an average of about 10. Most Blinks also have an audio version.

The Blink system is designed to present a book in the shortest and most easily absorbed way. Each Blink has a title that summarizes it. The last Blink has a short, one-paragraph Final Summary. The system is skillfully designed to accommodate your time availability. If you have a leisurely 15 minutes, you can read all of the Blinks. If you are a bit rushed, you can choose among the Blink title summaries, conveniently gathered in a separate list. And if you are really pressed for time, you’ve got the whole book in the Final Summary.

The Blinks are written by an international group of reader/summarizers. They follow the Blink template strictly, so that you always know just what to expect—like driving across the country and eating only at McDonald’s. There is some variation. Most are written in a formal third-person point of view; others are written in a chattier, effusive second person that, I suppose, might appeal to some people.

Blink summaries are, overall, very good. I read Blinks for 17 books that I’ve read in full, and almost all of them did a sound job of capturing the books’ main ideas and themes. For a few, I thought an important point was missing, but book summarizing is still, in spite of the structured Blink system, a human activity.

Some books lend themselves better to the system. Large, sprawling megaworks such as The Wealth of Nations or Thinking, Fast and Slow delve so deeply into several themes that it’s a struggle to squeeze them into a handful of Blinks. Other books, especially many of the newer personal improvement and career development titles—which are often short and focused on a core set of ideas—work well as Blinks.  

ORGANIZING BLINKS

The Blinkist site is intuitive and simple, and it has a number of useful curation features. The books are arranged in 27 categories, and the entire collection can be searched by author or title. If you select a book to read, it is added to your personal Library, where there are links to purchase it from Amazon or send it to a Kindle (but not other e-readers). Text snippets can be sent via Facebook or Twitter. There are curated lists: best titles by subject, popular titles, recent titles, and titles suggested by your choices. Blinkist Magazine has short articles that highlight Blinkist titles by authors, themes, and current trends. The Blinkist app for tablets and phones has additional features, including offline reading, greater content management, and a collection of full-text audiobooks that can be purchased at substantial discounts from publishers’ prices. Blinkist is a subscription service with two basic plans: A monthly subscription is $15.99, and a yearly one is $99.99 ($8.34 per month). Group pricing is available.

WHY BLINKIST?

As I read through several dozen Blinks, I grew more impressed with Blinkist’s practical utility, especially for its customers who are seeking to keep abreast of business, career development, and personal improvement titles (Blinkist records include the number of reads, and they indicate that those Blinks are heavily read).

Many books in these genres are published every year, and there are always a number of them that catch fire and suddenly become must-reads for businesspeople, professionals, managers, and self-helpers. These folks may feel obligated—whether by self-, cultural, or peer pressure—to read all of these must-reads, but it just won’t happen. Blinkist provides a reasonable way to gain value from these books, when there is just “too little time.”

Mick O'LearyMick O’Leary has been reviewing databases and websites for Information Today since 1987. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com or tweet us (@ITINewsBreaks)